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Archive for September, 2010

The following article first appeared on May 30, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.  Of course, the subject was “in season” at the time, but I’ve decided to re-print my columns in the order they were published.  footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine for some excellent writing and photography!

As May leads into June and the sweet promise of summer, I am reminded of two spring and summer “rites of passage” of my youth that were also big photographic events: proms and graduations. Both events require you to wear somewhat “unnatural” clothing – that is, outfits you will never again wear in public. Because of these outfits, the photos of these events are often seen as humorous many years later.

My brother parodies the classic prom pose in 1985.

The unnaturalness of a prom is the fact that you dress up in wedding-like costumes of tuxes and gowns, yet you are warned by every adult in your life to refrain from all things lewd, dishonorable, romantic, and/or fun. In other words, you dress like you’re getting married but can’t do anything that would be associated with an actual marriage event. Nearly everyone who attended a prom has the obligatory photos taken at either your house or your date’s house or both. Often there is a shot of several couples who have decided to drive together, usually because only one lucky person had the license and the car. In these group shots, the couples look uncomfortable and anxious to go have some fun. Of course, they also look blinded by flashbulbs in what was likely the thirty-second photograph taken of them before even leaving the house.

My face is frozen into a smile…can we leave now?

Once at the prom, couples lined up for their “official” prom portrait. These are often the most humorous because you are put into the official Prom Shot position, an unnatural pose that you and your date will never find yourselves in unless you are standing way too close together while you wait in a buffet line.

Does anything say “1977” quite like a white tuxedo?

The best thing about these photos is that they seem to become dated almost immediately. They “depreciate” faster than driving a new car off of the lot. Looking back at the “old” hairdos and fashions is a scream, especially if your children or nieces and nephews find your ancient photos. In my junior and senior prom photos, I appear to have lived during the Victorian age since I am wearing decidedly un-cool dresses that barely showed my neck much less anything lower. What’s funny is not the fact that my mother chose these dresses for me, but the irony of it. I was not in need of any protection from the wandering hands or eyes of my dates – both were good friends who had already decided to enter the seminary after high school. My prom dates became Catholic priests! Well, at least I didn’t tempt them in those outfits!

With the future Fr. Rob in 1984 and the future Fr. Lou in 1985. Yes, I had a reputation, but it was the reputable kind – “Dance with Donna and you’ll enter the seminary!”

When it comes to uncomfortable poses, nothing beats a good graduation photograph. The classic portrait of the graduate wearing a judge-like gown and a “mortarboard” cap has not changed much over the years. In fact, you might even have a hard time dating a graduation photograph if it weren’t for hairstyles changing over the years, or perhaps styles of eyeglasses. The trick with these portraits is the ability to balance the board on your head – without messing up the “do” – and look natural in the process.

Father and son graduate high school 25 years apart.

It somehow seemed easier for the boys to look more natural than the girls wearing the silly hat, perhaps because they were far less concerned about their hair. For my portrait, the photographer chose a very large cap and used a clothespin in the back to hold it in place. As with any portrait, the photographer then turns your head in an odd angle and your torso in another. The fact that it was portrait day was stressful enough! “How’s my hair?” “How’s my face?” “OMG is that a zit?!” It doesn’t really matter how you look – later generations will laugh at your photo anyway.

Graduating Class of St. Peter’s Grade School, Philadelphia, PA, 1948.

Next week I’ll watch my oldest niece attend her first big “dance” – not quite a prom since dates, gowns, and tuxes are not required. Two weeks later, I’ll watch her don the funny hat and graduate from 8th grade. As the proud aunt, I’ll take a lot of photos. They will all be quite serious. But I’ll have to remind her that she’ll see the humor it them years later – when she is old enough that she thinks she looks like a baby in those photos! Happy dancing and graduating to all, and remember to smile for the camera!

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Genealogical research used to be all about waiting.  When I began researching my roots twenty years ago, very few records were available online.  Actually, I don’t think any records were available online.  Researching the records I needed involved driving to their physical location to slowly scroll through microfilm.  Usually you would first have to find a record in an index film, and then perform a similar scroll through another film to find the record.

Now, I’m spoiled.  That same research process today takes seconds thanks to sites like Familysearch.org and Ancestry.com that have many records available online.  But, unfortunately, our ancestors’ pasts haven’t been completely digitized yet, so occasionally I still have to rely on microfilm as well as another of my research techniques from those early days – the mail.

Pennsylvania is one of those states that restricts access to vital records after 1906 and does not allow records to be posted online*.  The requester also has to be related to the deceased and provide a lot of the information that is usually the reason one requests such a record in the first place.  Regular postal mail today is called “snail mail” for a reason, and it is even more so applicable when waiting for a requested record from the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records.  On June 14, I requested two death certificates.  For one, I knew the exact death date.  For the other, I knew the month and year of death.  My checks were cashed on June 29.  And I waited.  And waited.

When I wrote this post earlier this week, I was still waiting.  But as luck would have it, I finally received the records before I could complain about it by posting this to my blog.  The receipt date was September 16 – a mere three months after I requested it.  Oddly enough, I pulled out some notebooks from the beginning days of my research – and was surprised by what I found.  I was more organized back then, so I recorded dates for my record requests and receipts.  Not only did the death records cost $3 in 1990 vs. today’s $9, but the average response time was three weeks.   Also, you weren’t required to already know all of the facts on the record you were requesting!

Sometimes even information you can order online requires playing the waiting game. Around the same time I ordered those death certificates, I placed a request for an index search from USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).  I actually already know the person’s naturalization date and have a copy of the papers; however, I requested the search to see if any additional papers are included in this ancestor’s file.  I’m still waiting for that response.  The website indicates that they are currently processing requests from mid-May, so I may have an answer by Thanksgiving.

While Familysearch.org has made genealogists’ lives easier with many records available online, they haven’t yet completed the monumental task of digitizing their entire catalog.  For the rest of those records, the waiting game is just like it used to be back in those early days of my research.  I’m gearing up to drive to my local Family History Center to order a microfilm.  Then I’ll wait.  And maybe call to see if they forgot to call me.  Then wait some more.  Then pray that the record I am looking for can actually be found on that particular film.

As images fly by on my computer screen via blog posts, tweets, RSS feeds, emails, and Facebook status updates, I will (not so) patiently wait for the mailman and the FHL microfilm delivery phone call to arrive.  The waiting game can be difficult if you’ve been spoiled over the last twenty years by technological advances, but the results, once eventually received, are as sweet as they ever were.

*For information on a grass roots effort to make Pennsylvania’s vital records more accessible, see the People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access  (PaHR-Access).

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My grandmother, Margaret Bergmeister Pointkouski, with her children James and Jean in front of their Philadelphia home.  Note the spiffy pants on my dad!

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This month’s COG (for which I am late…the dog ate my homework, Teacher Jasia!) asked us to Research From Scratch by starting a search on someone else’s family tree.   When I began my own family research about 21 years ago, there were not any records available on the internet.  Lately I’ve wondered how much I could have found if I had waited until today to begin my search and how much easier it would have been.  This challenge was an opportunity to find out. The subject of my experiment: actor-singer-dancer-director Gene Kelly.  As most visitors to this site have since surmised, Gene Kelly is what I call my “other gene hobby.”  Gene was well known for his smiling “Irish eyes”, but I was curious about his Canadian and German ancestry as well.  Starting from scratch, how much could I find in a few hours?  In that short amount of time, I learned a lot about his ancestry.  But I also learned some research lessons that I’d like to share.

Start by interviewing your family, but don’t believe everything they say as fact.

When I began my own research, I started by asking my parents questions about their parents and grandparents, and I also referred to an interview with my grandmother when I was in grade school and needed to complete a family history project.  That same advice holds true today – you need basic facts about a family to begin your research.  In the case of my subject, I couldn’t actually talk to Mr. Kelly.  So instead I turned to the only biography that was written during his lifetime in which the author interviewed Kelly himself.

The book is Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn (Chicago : H. Regnery, 1975).  While it is not entirely accurate – especially since it begins with the incorrect birth date of its subject – it was a way to get basic information about his brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents – as close as I can get to acquring the info from Gene himself.

From the first chapter of the biography, I learned enough basic facts to begin my research on the Kelly family:

  • Gene’s parents were James Patrick Joseph Kelly and Harriet Curran.  They married in 1906.
  • Both came from large families; James was one of eleven children, and Harriet one of 13.
  • Harriet’s father, Billy Curran, “had emigrated to New York from Londonderry in 1845…via Dunfermline in Scotland.”  Billy met “Miss Eckhart”, of German descent, married and moved to Houtzdale, PA.  They later moved to Pittsburgh.
  • Billy died before 1907 from pneumonia after he was left in the cold at night after being robbed.
  • There were 9 Curran children, and 4 who died, but only 7 are named: Frank, Edward, Harry, John, Lillian, Harriet, and Gus.
  • James Kelly was born in Peterborough Canada in 1875
  • James died in 1966, and Harriet died in 1972.  Of Harriet, Mr. Hirschhorn says, “No one quite knows whether she was 85, 87, or 89.”

In addition to Gene’s parents’ info were the basics about their children.  In birth order, the Kelly family included Harriet, James, Eugene Curran, Louise, and Frederic.  Gene was born on August 23, 1912.  This is plenty of information to begin a search.  But, don’t believe everything you read or everything your family members tell you – sometimes the “facts” can be wrong, and only research will find the truth!

Census records are a great place to begin your research.

Back in 1989, my research began at the National Archives with the U.S. Federal Census records.  Of course, back then the first available census was from 1910, and none of the records were digitized.  Today, I still think census records are the best place to start researching a family.   I used Ancestry.com and began with the 1930 census.  Despite many “James Kelly” families in Pittsburgh, PA, it was relatively easy to find the entire Kelly clan.  As I continued backward with earlier census records and Harriet Kelly’s Curran family, I found some similarities to issues I had in my own family research:

  • Names can be misspelled.  I expected this with Zawodny and Piontkowski, but not with Curran!  The Curran family is listed as “Curn” on the 1900 census.
  • Ages are not necessarily correct.  It seems that Harriet Curran Kelly has a similar condition to many of my female ancestors – she ages less than ten years every decade and grows younger!
  • Information can differ from census to census, and these conflicts can only be resolved by using other record resources.  Despite birth year variations for both Gene’s mother and father, James Kelly’s immigration year differed on each census as did Harriet’s father’s birthplace (Pennsylvania, Ireland, or Scotland?).
  • Finding in-laws is a bonus, and a great way to discover maiden names.  If I didn’t already know that Harriet’s maiden name was Curran (from Gene’s biography – and it is also Gene’s middle name), I would have discovered it on the 1930 census since her brother Frank Curran was living with the Kelly family.  Also, I knew Harriet’s mother’s maiden name was “Eckhart” from the biography, and the 1880 census of the Curran family lists her brother and sisters – James, Jennie, and Josephine Eckerd.

In the few hours of research on census records alone, I was able to trace Gene’s father only to 1910 after his marriage to Harriet.  In 1900 he was single, and I was unable to find a recent Canadian immigrant named James Kelly.  Gene’s maternal line ran dry with the Curran’s in 1880.  William Curran and Mary Elizabeth “Eckhart” married after 1870.  There are too many William Curran’s from Ireland to determine the correct one, and I was unable to locate the Eckhart family prior to 1880.

Naturalization records provide the best information – after 1906.

The signature of Gene Kelly’s father from his “declaration of intention” petition in 1913.

Ancestry.com also provided James Kelly’s naturalization record.  In addition to confirming his birth in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1875 (also found in Ancestry’s World War 1 Draft records), the petition lists his immigration information and the birthdates of the first 4 Kelly children (youngest son Fred was not born at the time of his father’s naturalization).  Unfortunately the record does not list the birthplace of Harriet other than as Pennsylvania.  Was it in Houtzdale, PA, where her parents resided in 1880 or elsewhere?

Although Ancestry has Canadian census records, I was unable to definitely find James Kelly in Ontario on the 1881 or 1891 census.

The internet helps you find a lot of information, but not everything is online.

Census records can only get you so far before you need vital records.  While many states also have these records online, Gene Kelly’s ancestors settled in the same state as mine, Pennsylvania, which is not one of the “friendlier” states when it comes to accessing vital records.  If I were to continue with the Kelly research, vital records would have to be obtained offline.  It would be useful to obtain the marriage record for William Curran and Mary Elizabeth Eckhart, which may have occurred in Clearfield County since that was their residence in 1880.  Finding this record would reveal both sets of parents’ names and possibly birth information for William and Mary Elizabeth.  For the Kelly side of the family, I would likely attempt to obtain James Kelly’s birth record in Peterborough.

 [Side note: I have met several of Kelly’s relatives.  One cousin has delved deeper into the Peterborough roots of the Kelly family as well as James Kelly’s maternal line, the Barry family.  There is an interesting newspaper article on a house that may have belonged to the Canadian Kelly’s called One Little House Leads to Many Connections.]

Conclusion

I was able to confirm many of the intial facts I started with, but I didn’t learn any essential information in addition to those facts.  Specifically, I hoped to learn more about Gene’s maternal grandmother’s German roots, but I was unable to find out anything more about the Eckhart – Eckerd family using Ancestry.com alone.  More offline research is learn more about this branch of the family.  I did learn more about Gene’s aunts and uncles – this is important because researching collateral lines can lead to important information about shared direct ancestors.  Finally, I learned that it is much easier to start from scratch now than it was 21 years ago.  Even though the record sources I used were the same, digitization and the internet has made it much faster to find information!  And easier, which is great because it will hopefully prompt more people to start from scratch!  What are you waiting for?  Start researching your family!

[Submitted (late) for the 97th Carnival of Genealogy: Research from Scratch]

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